Arts Policy Should Focus on Building Individual Appreciation of the Arts

For Release

February 15, 2005

The broad range of benefits that the arts provide to individuals can be sustained and enhanced by strengthening public appreciation of the arts, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The study—commissioned by The Wallace Foundation—concludes that giving individuals repeated rewarding experiences with the arts over time is a necessary first step before other, more public benefits of the arts can be realized. These other benefits include exposure to new perspectives, sharpened learning skills among young people, expanded capacity for empathy, and stronger social bonds in communities.

Based on these findings, the report recommends that federal, state and local policy be refocused to build demand for the arts by introducing more Americans to engaging arts experiences, especially when they are young. This would be an expansion of the current focus on maintaining the supply of the arts.

“We hope that future policies focus on cultivating the demand for the arts, rather than the supply,” said Kevin McCarthy, RAND senior social scientist and the lead author of the report, titled “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts.” “A demand-side approach would build a market for the arts by helping people personally experience its benefits and understand how arts can improve their quality of life.”

M. Christine DeVita, president of The Wallace Foundation, added: “ ‘Gifts of the Muse’ reminds us that the arts provide both private and public benefits, that one leads to the other, and that we need to focus on increasing participation in the arts, especially among children.”

The RAND study arrives at its conclusion based on a new approach to understanding the public value of the arts. The report challenges the view that the intrinsic benefits of the arts—including wonder, captivation and meaning—are of purely individual or private value. Instead, the study argues that such experiences lay the foundation for other benefits and can lead to the development of individual qualities such as understanding and empathy that have public value because they are desirable in citizens of a pluralistic society.

Powerful individual experiences can also lead to broader public benefits, including the creation of stronger social bonds achieved through shared experiences and expressions of communal meaning, the report found. Therefore, an exclusive emphasis on instrumental benefits, such as economic impact, does not provide a sufficient basis for policy decisions about the arts, the study says.

The study contends that many of the benefits of the arts are gained only through a process of sustained involvement. Two key factors that help stimulate such sustained involvement are early childhood experiences and strong arts experiences that are marked by high levels of emotional, mental and sometimes social engagement.

As a result, the study says the key to spreading the benefits of the arts is to help greater numbers of Americans to have engaging arts experiences through sustained and deep involvement. This requires shifting policy to balance the current focus on building supply of the arts with efforts to cultivate demand. The study offers a series of recommendations to achieve this goal:

  • Promote early exposure to the arts through schools and community programs.
  • Encourage arts organizations to provide rewarding experiences that connect with audiences and educate them to appreciate the arts.
  • Address the limitations of the research on instrumental benefits and encourage research on the intrinsic benefits of the arts.
  • Develop clear and compelling language for discussing intrinsic benefits that reflects the importance of qualitative factors as well as quantitative results.

According to “Gifts of the Muse,” while existing research studies of cognitive, behavioral, health, social and economic benefits of the arts offer evidence that the arts can produce such instrumental public benefits for individuals and communities, they suffer from three main limitations:

  • Many studies have not been able to show a direct causal relationship between exposure to the arts and the benefits claimed. Most studies have only been able to establish a correlation between arts involvement and the presence of benefits.
  • While research has linked the arts to benefits, it has given little indication about what type of exposure, frequency and characteristics of the individual involved is required to produce those benefits.
  • The studies do not acknowledge that the arts are only one means to achieve such benefits and they may not be superior to other means.

According to the report, these research studies show that of the instrumental benefits of the arts that are likely to be created:

  • All but the most ephemeral benefits are likely to require sustained involvement in the arts. The more important benefits, such as learning how to learn and developing the personal skills needed for behavioral change, will not be triggered by short-term arts involvement.
  • The strongest arts-involvement effects on young people are likely to come from direct involvement in the performing arts, one of the few areas in which empirical studies have successfully demonstrated benefits from arts involvement.
  • Using the arts to teach non-arts subjects may be particularly useful for students with nontraditional learning styles. But these effects may not be particularly strong overall.
  • Of the claimed cognitive effects of arts participation on children, the enhancement of learning skills is more likely to occur than the enhancement of knowledge acquisition in non-arts subjects, such as mathematics.
  • Most types of arts involvement have a social dimension that can provide an important basis for building social capital and community identity. Volunteering and other forms of arts stewardship help build community organizational capacity.

In addition to McCarthy, other authors of the report are Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Laura Zakaras and Arthur Brooks of RAND.

A printed copy of “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts” (ISBN: 0-8330-36947(paperback)) can be ordered form RAND's Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

About The Wallace Foundation

The Wallace Foundation supports and shares effective ideas and practices that help institutions expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people. Its current goals are to: strengthen education leadership to improve student achievement; improve out-of-school time learning opportunities; and expand participation in arts and culture.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.